Newt Gingrich's Morality and Mine

In the past year, as I have written about welfare, our political system, the Contract with America, and human morality, I have come to believe that compassion is the root of all morality.

It was a very great puzzle to meet the Texas lawyer I wrote about recently, who recommended concentration camps for the homeless and bragged that he had scored on the Stanford-Binet personality test as having no compassion. This man, who is involved in the Phil Gramm presidential campaign, seemed friendly, competent, a normal person, and a pillar of Austin society. I felt there are probably millions like him in this country.

He reminds me of any number of Germans it probably would have been possible to spend a delightful day with in 1935. Lunch, an aperitif, a bracing walk in the country air, fellowship, professional matters in common, a whole realm of common interests creating sympathy, and then, at the end of the day, a comment about the Jews being a parasite that must be driven out. Contrary to the portrait, common in films and popular novels, of obvious, cardboard Nazis, people who lived under German occupation have commented that the Germans that they knew were normal people with a piece missing. That piece was compassion.

Since the religious right, the far right, the Contract Republicans, and my friend the Texas attorney all talk of morality, even cloak themselves in it, I have been wondering how there can be a morality without compassion. This led me to the conclusion that there are two competing schemes of morality in our country: that based on compassion and another based on prohibition. The reason this was not intuitively obvious was because most of the highlights of our national moral and legal scheme can be arrived at by either approach.

Let's look at pornography as an example. In a moral and legal system based on compassion, I ask who the victims of pornography are. Once I have answered this question--concluding perhaps that minors or (with Catharine MacKinnon) women are at risk, I can then find a solution based on compassion for the victims. This might be similar to the solution arrived at by a prohibitionist; it might even be identical: we may both find the same definition of obscenity and apply the same penalties.

But the prohibitionist will get there by a different road. In his world view, pornography is bad in itself; it is sinful, disgusting pollution and it must be prohibited. Compassion has nothing to do with it.

The concept of a morality not involving compassion as its centerpiece was actually so alien to me that, in my recent debate with "Bob Wilson", I kept challenging him on the issue: do the Contract Republicans feel compassion? Was there anyone he himself would help? How is the Contract Republicans' compassion expressed? (I wouldn't accept an answer that we help people exclusively by leaving them to sort things out for themselves.) I have read the Contract With America, and I certainly found the righteousness and the prohibitionist morality in it, but I couldn't find the compassion anywhere. The section on the family--exactly where you would expect to find it-- seems like a grab bag of trivial, unrelated thoughts: lets protect families against unwanted telephone surveys. But lack of health insurance is not a problem. I suspect the original draft didn't have a section on the family; when it was added, they didn't have that much to put in it.

"Wilson" finally demonstrated a pebble of compassion: yes, there are a few people he might help. I never have seen my Texas friend kick a blind newsboy, and I suspect he probably would stop to lift a drowning child from a puddle (not necessarily if it was homeless, though.)

"Wilson" said that compassion, as applied by Democrats and people like me, is dangerously misguided. We are throwing the poor anchors, not life preservers. The theme is prevalent in conservative literature: thirty years of dangerously misguided social programs have left us in this mess. I think compassion is to justice as the ego is to the superego. Compassion may fill us with impulses to help everyone, well beyond our means; justice (in my world view) is a means of channeling compassion to make sure we are acting fairly (not helping A at unreasonable expense to B) and within our means.

It is interesting to compare the two schemes of morality and law--the compassionate and the prohibitionist--by examining what can go badly wrong. A compassionate scheme, out of control, results in poverty and dependence. A prohibitionist scheme, out of control, results in murder. The Nazis are just one example; every pogrom, every religious war, every political persecution throughout history, grew from a prohibitionist scheme of morality. Personally, I would rather base my morality on compassion, with the attendant risks, than on prohibition.